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Will "absurd" process make Atlantic Yards this generation’s Penn Station?

At every public program these days about urbanism, it seems, Atlantic Yards gets a mention, and Wednesday night, at a panel titled "Modernism and the Public Realm" at the Museum of the City of New York, Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society (MAS), offered a striking prediction.

It was a passing, middle-of-the-night thought, he allowed, but maybe Atlantic Yards “will be, in its way, like Penn Station,” the 1963 demolition of which galvanized New Yorkers to finally achieve a landmarks preservation law. “Maybe the absurdity with which that proceeded will awaken the desire for a more rational process.”

(That begs the question about why Barwick and the MAS have not taken a more confrontational stance toward Atlantic Yards, instead hoping to mend it rather than end it. More on that here.)

Fellow panelist Fred Siegel, an urbanist and author, seconded Barwick’s remarks. They were both responding to a widespread belief that something was wrong with the Atlantic Yards process. The city and state backed the Atlantic Yards project without issuing a request for proposals and conducting community planning. In the approval vote, the Empire State Development Corporation's (ESDC) truncated board took all of 15 minutes to publicly consider the project.

Indeed, while city officials have not said so explicitly, their commitment to improved process, however imperfect, in plans for the West Side yards, the Columbia University expansion, and the Coney Island rezoning, as well as the guidelines in PlaNYC 2030, all suggest some recognition that Atlantic Yards was no model.

Author Glazer’s unease

The evening's guest of honor was eminent sociologist Nathan Glazer, author of the recently-published collection of essays, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, who, when he spoke about the book in April, offered several criticisms of Atlantic Yards.

Though he hadn't planned for it, the collection, Glazer said, emerged at a fortuitous time, when museum exhibits reconsidered Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and debate over large projects was more intense than it had been in years.

Jacobs’s great contribution, he said, was to defend density and diversity in an era when many looked askance at what they considered crowding and the prevailing professional view was that different functions—housing, retail, etc.—should be separate.

“But, let me point out, the density she defended was almost laughable,” Glazer said, citing the two- to six-story height of buildings in Greenwich Village. That’s not so, given that Jacobs thought tall buildings had their place and supported high density; later in the question-and-answer session, audience member Benjamin Hemric, a keen student of Jacobs’s work, set him straight.

Glazer described the emergence of oversize buildings near 100th Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side (which prompted a rezoning) and expressed a general view that “something has gone wrong.” Noting that the economic conditions in centuries past, rather than urban planning, created Greewich Village, he said, today's economic situation "has changed what is possible.”

Barwick: tools need sharpening

Barwick concurred with Glazer’s lament, saying that a “sense of unease” has been expressed by visitors to the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition mounted by the MAS at the Urban Center.

However, Barwick said he was optimistic that the city could absorb growth and develop while maintaining crucial texture. “I think the real lesson of Jane Jacobs isn’t that Hudson Street should be reproduced,” he said, noting that Jacobs’s old neighborhood has “kept its architecture but lost its architecture.”

Rather, the Jacobsian lesson, as applied today regarding projects like the West Side yards or Atlantic Yards, is that citizens "have the power” to use their senses to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. “It’s not that we’ve run out of land," he said. "We haven’t sharpened our tools,” such a zoning and tax incentives.

As for the city’s sometimes-lauded Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), Barwick called it “a complete sham.” Still, he acknowledged that “even ULURP is apparently much too much democracy,” noting that developers prefer the ESDC's streamlined process.

The ESDC, formally the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), was granted the power to override restrictive suburban zoning in the tumultuous 1960s to achieve affordable housing, he noted. “Today the powers of the UDC are used all over the place,” citing the deployment of eminent domain for the New York Times building and its threatened use for Atlantic Yards.

Communities, Barwick acknowledged, “should not be allowed to decide by themselves” the fate of development plans. “But to not pay attention to them is absurd.” Then he came to his point about Atlantic Yards as this generation's Penn Station.

Later, he gave his personal take on a replacement for ULURP: “you ought to put the emphasis on building consensus at the beginning rather than assessing environmental impact at the end.” One good example, he said, is the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030. (The MAS is working on a neighborhood 2030 project in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush.)

Siegel: AY a boondoggle

After seconding Barwick, Siegel, an urbanist with a center-right bent, attacked Atlantic Yards as a subsidy boondoggle. Brooklyn, he pointed out, is going through an economic boom. “In the midst of this, what is the compelling economic logic for Atlantic Yards?” he said, citing $700 million in subsidies. (Actually, the amount of direct subsidies would be $305 million, but the total in tax breaks, discounted land, and other benefits surely exceeds $700 million.)

Siegel briefly returned to the precipitating issue, Glazer’s book, suggesting that “modernism, in a dense urban setting, tends to capsize everything around it.” (Here's his review.) It seemed like a swipe at Frank Gehry's Atlantic Yards design.

More pessimistic than Barwick, Siegel suggested that Atlantic Yards is “really about what happened to the political culture of New York.” It’s not that there isn’t a well-reasoned opposition to Atlantic Yards, he said. “There isn’t a civic culture to stop it.”

The opposition to the West Side Stadium, he pointed out, was spearheaded not by good-government groups but by the Dolan family, owners of deep-pocketed Cablevision, who saw their Madison Square Garden threatened.

He allowed that Atlantic Yards developer “Bruce Ratner has done some good things,” suggesting that the subsidies for MetroTech were well-targeted in a time when Brooklyn needed development. (Others disagree.) Now, however, he suggested that developers gain sway by buying out community groups and promising affordable housing. He noted Ratner’s friendliness with former Gov. George Pataki and friendly relationship with current Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Siegel was skeptical that the city’s growth is organic, instead pointing to a “transient population” of Europeans taking advantage of a weak dollar to invest in Manhattan apartments, part of what he called “Bloomberg’s idea of the luxury city.”

In closing, he returned to Atlantic Yards, which he declared not a product of modernism, economic growth, or housing demand. “It is purely and simply a product of the mayor’s politics.”

Looking forward

Moderator Hilary Ballon, lead curator of the Moses exhibits, tried to look at the future, asking how to preserve the vitality of the city amid current economic forces. Glazer acknowledged he was stumped, calling it “odd” that the real estate economy is so fundamental to the city rather than a “primary economy” of producing things for the world.

Barwick pointed to Bloomberg, who has said the city needs to be transformed because it might lose its financial services industry to London, which is much closer to Asian markets. While Barwick said that thesis should be considered, Siegel called it “bizarre.” Financial services regulation, rather than the transformation of the city, threaten Wall Street, he said. “What would I do? Not add any new regulation.”

Civic culture in cyberspace?

Siegel returned to an earlier theme: activist civic groups like the Citizens Union no longer have the profile they had 30 years ago. “If you don’t have a vibrant civic culture, I’m afraid I’m not optimistic.” (Note the Citizens Union's cautious response to Atlantic Yards last December, calling for delay but distancing itself from project opponents.)

Barwick responded that he was more optimistic, given that “all this new media” in Brooklyn is part of “a rebirth of activism…. It may not be over.” (He didn’t provide examples, but Atlantic Yards is, as noted by the New York Times in April 2006, the first development where opposition and responses have emerged significantly in cyberspace.)

Ballon returned to a theme she expressed at a panel November 6, the challenge of transcending the interest of the neighborhood and seeing the city as a whole—a challenge this panel didn't quite address.

Modernism & Jacobs

From the audience, commentator Hemric suggested that the anti-Jacobsian culprit is not tall buildings—he pointed to Rockefeller Center as a successful example of density and diversity—but modern architecture that doesn’t accommodate diverse uses.

Barwick suggested that it wasn’t the fault of architecture but instead “how the building’s financed,” given that anchor tenants control the fate of the building. The city, he said, could do more to define how retail space works.

Ballon, in closing, acknowledged that her moderator’s role restrained herself from defending modernist architects, since she believes they were championing certain urban values.

In her American Prospect review of Glazer’s book, Ballon noted how Glazer observes that New York has failed to plan for crucial infrastructural improvements and offers some hope:
But a new wind is blowing in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his planning team of Daniel Doctoroff and Amanda Burden have resurrected the public face of planning and infrastructure with an initiative called PlaNYC 2030. Although the political system does not reward long-term projects, New York may be on the threshold of a turnaround. And if that effort can succeed in New York, there may well be new receptivity elsewhere to Glazer's plea to revitalize planning and his desire to "unleash the productive forces, but then govern them by a larger sense of the public and common good."

If so, will Atlantic Yards be seen as a turning point?


  1. As usual, your report is a nicely detailed, pretty accurate summary of the event!

    Given that the stated topic was modernism, I think it's interesting that this event turned into such an Atlantic Yards bashfest! (And this is especially interesting as it included participants from across the political spectrum, not just liberals -- as usually seems to be the case at such events.) As the evening progressed, I was thinking to myself, "Norman must certainly be pleased at the way this event is going!"

    Some comments:

    1) I especially like Fred Siegel's anti-Atlantic Yards comments since they seemed to be a good articulation of my own feelings about Atlantic Yards. While I'm not sure Fred Siegel would agree with my entire thesis (although he might), my feeling, briefly stated, is that the problem with Atlantic Yards isn't too little planning and community participation but too much planning and community participation (e.g., eminent domain, direct and indirect public subsidies, community benefits agreements, etc.) As Fred Siegel seemed to be saying, or at least to be implying, if it weren't for planning and gov't involvement there wouldn't be any Atlantic Yards -- because Atlantic Yards does not make sense in a true market environment (without eminent domain, direct and indirect subsidies, etc.)

    But I also agree with the critics of MetroTech and disagree with Siegel (who surprised me) when he suggested that MetroTech was an exception, an instance where planning, subsidies, etc. were helpful rather than unnecessary or harmful -- and that it was a Ratner good deed. (By the way, for New Yorkers of a certain age -- and I think Siegel might be that age -- Ratner does indeed have some legitimate good deeds to his credit. Believe it or not, he was at one time a very good Commissioner of Consumer Affairs [under Ed Koch?])!

    2) If I had been a panelist, rather than just a questioner from the audience, I would have elaborated on my comments regarding the role I believe modernism plays in devitalizing cities. While I recognize that there is a grain of truth to what Barwick said about how the financing of modern office buildings has affected their design (e.g., prime tenants, and thus developers, don't want street level retail, etc.), I think it is only a grain. It seems to me that prime tenants (and thus developers) don't want street level retail BECAUSE they have been "brainwashed" by modernists. Modernist ideology devalues commerce in favor of architectural statements (that glorify architects), and modernists have convinced (via museum exhibitions, articles in Sunday supplements, etc.) the general public (corporate executives, etc.) to go along.

    Furthermore, the modernists have managed to institutionize their love for architectural statements and disdain for commerce in the New York City zoning code which, as a result, discourages "old-fashioned" street-level retail, and street vitality, because it instead provides lucrative bonuses for modernist "plazas" and, in effect, the design-centric, "starchitect"-designed signature buildings to go with them.

    For those who have read Tom Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House," I think this effect of modernism on the city's streetscape that I forward is yet another manifestation of the elitist, anti-capitalist, "design" community-centric ideology of "modernism" that is a focal point of that book.

    Two brief examples to illustrate my thesis and answer Barwick's comments:

    Modernism has had the same effect on the design of apartment houses, which are not financed the same way as office buildings.

    Look at the pre-modernist Woolworth Tower. Here is an office building that was built as a signature building for a single tenant, and this building has plenty of street level retail. Woolworth financed the building itself, so it could do anything it pleased, but this was before the ideology of modernism had taken hold.


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